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The Indispensables (Aug. 13, 2000)
Indispensables revisited (Jan. 21, 2001)
More Indispensables (July 8, 2001)
Indispensables, Continued (May 26, 2002)
Plant Life
Indispensables To Move Us
The Practical Gardener picks 10 of her sentimental favorites

Illustration AS YOU MIGHT expect, The Seattle Times' own Practical Gardener columnist, Mary Robson, came up with a list of 10 indispensable plants in a jiffy. Robson didn't seem to indulge in the teeth-gnashing that the other gardeners who've contributed to this ongoing series suffered in coming up with a mere 10 plants they couldn't garden without. One way I put this dilemma to the previous gardeners was to ask them to think about which few plants they'd be sure to carry with them to a new garden. This was not a hypothetical predicament for Robson, who recently moved gardens from a small, established, shady plot on Capitol Hill where she'd lived for 18 years to more than an acre of sunny, cut-over Douglas fir forest near Port Townsend.

"I chose these favorite plants in a spirit of reminiscence," explains Robson, "for I've had the pleasure of watching them spread and thrive for many years in my old garden." The plants will be put to the test because Robson has dug them up and plans to keep them in pots for the next year or so while she readies her new garden.

The plants Robson chose are sentimental favorites as well as dependable performers in dry summer conditions. She insists that plants mind their manners in the garden, and be good contributors in combination with other plants. Although she cites many of the same criteria as earlier contributors, there is no overlap between Robson's list and earlier choices.

IllustrationIn northern Ohio where Robson grew up, Hepatica americana carpeted acres of beech and maple woodland. "Here, it could be the slowest-growing perennial known," says Robson, but she loves the three-lobed evergreen leaves and star-like flowers that look like tiny anemones in shades of blue and pink. A successful trio in her old garden was Daphne odora 'Marginata' underplanted with the hepatica and Trillium grandiflorum, another Ohio woodland wildflower.

Robson thinks the quiet charms of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) "clearly announce that a gardener lives here." One of the earliest harbingers of spring, these little bulbs increase rapidly into thick clumps in semi-shade, blooming in late January with small, white, bell-shaped flowers.

At the other extreme from the modest snowdrop is the showy tree peony Paeonia lutea var. delavayi, which grows 6 feet tall with huge yellow flowers in May. "It fills me with awe," says Robson, for its brief perfection, fabulous foliage and the excitement of growing a plant from the mountains of China. Another flashy plant on Robson's list is the tulip 'Orange Emperor,' which she describes as nicely persistent. It blooms in mid-March in a brilliant shade of orange, especially effective when backlit by spring sunshine.

Robson doesn't stray too far from the practical, however. Her next two choices are hard-working evergreen groundcovers. Epimedium perralderianum is tough and thrives in dry shade. It has heart-shaped leaves and deceptively delicate yellow flowers in springtime. Vancouveria chrysantha is an equally sturdy, low-growing, drought-tolerant native plant with light green, glossy leaves and white blossoms in midspring that seem to float above the leaves.

Arum italicum is another ground-hugger, which can spread a little too rapidly when happy. It's worth taking the time to control, however, because in October its handsome arrow-shaped leaves, marked with white, emerge from the ground and persist through the winter. The plant disappears in May, remains dormant all summer, then in September throws up fat spikes of bright orange seeds.

While such surprising life cycles are attractive, every garden needs year-round plants for structure. Robson chose a couple of conifers to fill this role. She describes Pinus strobus 'Nana' as a pet-able plant, growing to only 3 by 5 feet in 18 years, with soft needles and elegant cones. Tsuga candensis 'Gentsch's White' is a hemlock that can be kept pruned to about 8 feet. Its distinction is white-tipped branches, giving the effect of a light, perpetual dusting of snow.

Robson rounds out her list with a little evergreen shrub, Sarcococca ruscifolia, a year-round staple for dry shade. It grows only about 3 1/2 feet high, has glossy evergreen leaves and tiny white flowers in January that smell deliciously of honey. "It has no natural enemies that I know of," says Robson, and if our Washington State University extension agent doesn't know of any problems, I think we can count on this being a trouble-free plant.


Valerie Easton is manager at the Miller Horticultural Library. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.

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